Ally McDonald's Mississippi state of mind

Ally McDonald's Mississippi state of mind

Uncategorized

Ally McDonald's Mississippi state of mind

Last spring at the NCAA Championship, Ally McDonald was asked whether she had thought about leaving Mississippi State early to turn professional.

“I wanted to build the program and be a part of it,” McDonald said. “It would be selfish of me to walk away.”

That quote was posted on Twitter, and within minutes Stacy Lewis had retweeted it.

Lewis, the world’s No. 1 player, and McDonald never have met, but they think alike.

No players in recent years have had more impact on reshaping their respective women’s golf programs than what Lewis did recently for Arkansas and what McDonald is doing now in Starkville.

“It just takes one,” Arkansas head coach Shauna Estes-Taylor said.

One player with the elusive “it” factor can vie for the biggest titles and simultaneously lift everyone around her. Upon arriving at a tournament, McDonald doesn’t emerge quietly from the team van, headphones blaring and head to the range. She belies the stereotype of a narcissistic, elite player.

Instead McDonald is the one making everyone else feel important, encouraging teammates to make each shot count. In those early days, especially, it was easy to pack it in when things went south.

“She gets it,” head coach Ginger Brown-Lemm said. “It’s much bigger than her, and that’s what makes it so special.”

McDonald, 21, grew up in Fulton, a don’t-blink town of about 4,000 in northeast Mississippi.McDonald’s father, Jamie, earned a degree in civil engineering from Mississippi State while her mother, Angie, studied medical technology at Ole Miss. She has a younger brother, Andrew, known around town as “Ally’s brother.”

“He can wear her out now,” Jamie said of his children’s driveway basketball battles. “She would never tell you that, but he can.”

Andrew, by the way, has grown to nearly 6 feet 3 inches.

McDonald grew up playing golf at Fulton Country Club, a hilly nine-hole course that tips out at 5,700 yards for two loops. There is little rough and only seven bunkers, all greenside.Yet McDonald said the short course demands shotmaking variety, such as on the third hole, with a tree in the middle of the fairway.

It wasn’t so much where McDonald practiced that mattered as much as with whom. The only other kid at the course who was close in age was Chad Ramey, whose dad happened to run the place.

There’s no practice range at Fulton, so McDonald and Ramey designed their own makeshift range across fairways.They aimed at trees and shagged their own balls, trying to stay out of the way of paying customers.

“During football and huntin’ season, it kind of clears out,” said Ramey, a recent MSU graduate whose lowest round at the par-35 Fulton is 27. He was 6 under going into the last hole and made an ace.

McDonald followed Ramey about 90 minutes south to see instructor V.J. Trolio at Old Waverly Golf Club in West Point. Ramey’s father, Stanley, would help reinforce what they’d learned at their lessons and call out shots for them to hit – a 5-yard draw or a low cut.

“She’s always been a phenomenal learner,” Trolio said.

Back at Fulton, Stanley Ramey often would throw down four balls inside of 100 yards and challenge them to get two of the four up-and-down.

In the absence of a heavy national junior schedule, McDonald found that her experience playing alongside boys is what best prepared her for college.A self-described tomboy, McDonald begged her mom to play on the middleschool football team as quarterback.

“Ally, we’re drawing the line,” Angie said.

Although the highly-competitive McDonald shined as point guard on the girls’ team at Itawamba Agricultural High School, she made her name playing golf with the boys.

Ramey, her teammate, won the state championship as a senior, and McDonald followed the next season, becoming the first girl to win the Mississippi boys title. The coolest thing about winning, she said, was that she did it from 7,000 yards, the longest course she had played.

“It really taught me to gain distance more naturally,” she said of playing against the boys, “rather than trying to go to the weight room.”

The fact that McDonald chose to stay close to home for college meant a great deal to MSU’s donor base and alumni, said Brown-Lemm, entering her fifth year in Starkville.

McDonald’s talent has helped attract more talent, but it takes a great leader and motivator to mold potential into results.

Enter Brown-Lemm, a 6-foot-1-inch tower of energy and smiles who has been stopped in airports lately by coaches who ask: What are you doing over there?

“It’s not rocket science,” Brown-Lemm said. “It’s just dedication to a theme or a concept. There is no doubt everyone on my golf team is going to work really hard. My job is to get their brain right.”

To that end the team spends one hour per week in the classroom, working on the neck up. It could pay off this spring when the NCAA Championship moves to the more strategic match-play format.

Mississippi State’s surge – from 105th in the Golfweek/ Sagarin College Rankings when McDonald arrived to 19th last spring – has been, Brown-Lemm said, “an excitementfilled, mission-based, positive and freeing effort.”

In other words, fun.

MSU’s international players are comfortable in Starkville because of the family atmosphere that Brown-Lemm created.

With a recruiting budget that has quadrupled, Brown-Lemm now travels the globe pursuing talent, and the message is that Mississippi State, while not a traditional powerhouse, has become a force. Players who choose Starkville will have a place to which they can return and have people not only recognize them but care.

“We’re just such a tight-knit family,” McDonald said.

Alongside the warm and fuzzys are stone-cold facts.

Brown-Lemm, a lover of statistics, helps players identify their weak areas by looking at numbers. It takes emotion out of the equation, she said.

Numbers also spell out incredible progress.

The Bulldogs have slashed their 54-hole scoring average by 51 strokes since Brown-Lemm arrived.

In 2013, MSU became the first school from Mississippi to advance to the NCAA Championship. The Bulldogs finished 24th – last in the field – but qualified again the next spring and placed sixth.

The goal this season: win it all.

“With our strong mentality, I feel like we can really break through,” said Rica Tse, a senior from New Zealand. “It’s more a day-to-day, present-moment mentality, taking the opponent on each hole rather than a big picture.”

And that’s exactly what Mississippi State has done so well in recent years. It began with a mental shift from merely participating in tournaments, to trying to win them. Each year Brown-Lemm’s team has taken sizable, calculated steps toward the big-time.

“It was really important to me to leave a mark,” McDonald said, “and build a program that would be in contention for national championships.”

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Sept. 5, 2014 issue of Golfweek magazine; click here to subscribe.

Latest

More Golfweek
Home